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The McGregors
Schooling


The first school in the Scottish settlement was a small log building that was used only a few years. The school population increased rapidly as more settlers came in and a new building was put up, built of sawn lumber. Though certainly not handsome in appearance, it was modern enough for its time. The inside walls were lath and plaster, and an attempt had been made to insulate the building by filling the space between the walls with a mixture of lime and sawdust, called grout. The building was low-ceilinged and ventilated by the frequent opening and shutting of the front door. A long, low box stove, which would take a four-foot stick, supplied the heat. The fuel was split hardwood, stored in a woodshed at the back. Several of the older boys acted as firemen, a position that carried great prestige and was eagerly sought after. There had been no toilets for the first school, but as a concession to progress one was provided for the girls at this one. The boys used a nearby grove of small cedars, winter and summer.

There were problems in winter. Most of the children wore woollen clothing, and in recess periods, like all children before and since, they tumbled in the snow. Because there was no way to brush the snow clean from the wool, and the damp clothes steamed in the hot room, winter was one long siege of colds and snuffles. But in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, a fairly hardy breed of second-generation Canadians emerged.

Their hygiene was sketchy. A few families had regular Saturday-night baths; others just forgot about it until spring, preferably until the twenty-fourth of May, celebrated as the birthday of that great and good queen, Victoria, and also as a day when theoretically one could go swimming. As to health, as far as one could judge, the score was about even between bathers and non-bathers.

The first teacher in the new school was a man in his sixties, formerly a surveyor. Too old to tramp through the bush, he had accepted what he thought was an easier job. He was quite thorough in mathematics and geography, did well enough in reading and writing, and taught a smattering of history, which was promptly forgotten, and of grammar, which was ignored. In discipline he demanded A plus, and his sixty-odd students walked in fear and stored up hate. Once out of school they forgot all about it and turned their thoughts to important affairs, of which the taming of this raw land was one. A few, pushed by parents who had been well educated themselves in Scotland, went on to high schools and universities. Doctors, lawyers, and politicians went all over North America from Bruce County.

Although Jim did not start to school until he was eight he did well enough because his mother had taught him a good deal at home. He went the first day in the care of three older sisters, for his brothers had already received a sketchy education. They worked on the farm in summer, and, when it suited them, attended school in the winter months. Jim was abandoned at the front door, or rather at one front door, the one reserved for the boys, because no female could enter there. Similarly, no male could enter at the other door, which belonged to the girls. He was led to a desk which he shared with another quaking novice undergoing the shattering experience of the first day of school. Jim was given a slate and told to copy certain letters written on the blackboard. This was all he did for the first week.

The desks were all the same size and first-graders sat with arms shoulder-high. Jim's desk partner, after an hour of copying, went quietly to sleep, his nose resting on the slate. Jim watched, paralysed with horror, as the master approached, birch gad -in hand-a small one which he was considerate enough to use on the little boys. Two swift whacks with the gad brought a yelp from the delinquent, and his pursuit of knowledge was resumed at once. All the pupils had turned to watch, happy with this break in the routine. Her Britannic Majesty, the good Queen Victoria, looked on from her portrait between the two blackboards at the front of the room. A young and beautiful lady, she showed her jewels to advantage and did not seem overly concerned with the conduct of her small subjects.

On other walls were some faded brown maps. Interesting places like Mongolia were shown where scattered residents rode in sheepskin coats on small ponies and wore conical hats. The centre of Africa was a blank space marked only by crocodiles with mouths agape and lions who held dark people down with huge paws. In the very centre Mr. Stanley was greeting Mr. Livingstone, both wearing odd-looking hats. On the world map the British Empire was marked in red spots, well scattered; some were quite small but British North America made up for that by being shown as a huge splash of red that faded away to nothing in the Arctic islands. Indians and buffalo contended for a place on the western prairies, and in the middle of Hudson Bay a compass pointed the directions and an odd creature with wings, presumably the north wind, blew at it with puffed-out cheeks.

None of the maps were changed during Jim's six years at the school. Only the Queen's portrait came down, to be replaced by one in which she had become a stout matronly lady who wore a bonnet. There were various jewels and ornaments on her person, and she looked sideways, chin on hand, indifferent to the onlooker and no doubt preoccupied by the affairs of all the red spots spattered about the globe.

Jim absorbed all these details in his six years' schooling. They were the source of endless speculation. He would lose himself in fantasies, shutting out the boredom, the smell of mouldy books and sour slate-cloths, to dream of far places, of lions and tigers, and of brown-skinned people on lonely islands. He developed a sixth sense which warned of danger, of the approach of the adding and the subtracting and the spelling things that dulled the soul and clipped the wings of fantasy. For then his daydreams had to be put aside in a lightning shift and a reasonable answer dredged up quickly to meet any possible question designed to trap the unwary. But school presented no particular problems for Jim. He was big and strong for his age, played games well, and fought with some success. He read the textbooks easily, and found that it was not too hard to follow most subjects without paying too much attention to a teacher who, except for mathematics, was not very well informed. Mathematics he resisted manfully, but such was the pressure and intensity of instruction that a good deal of that practical subject became firmly implanted and remained to be used to advantage later.


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